On the wings

The first dustings of snow have fallen. And yes it’s “sticking,” though there’s no accumulation yet to contend with. Long Lake is teeming with mergansers, black ducks and buffleheads. But I’ve still not boasted properly of all the winged things we’ve seen this year.

We had more Bald Eagle sightings than any other year. Since the eagles don’t migrate we’re hoping to continue the sightings through the winter. But it will be more difficult now that we can’t float around on the lake. Snow shoes will be an option soon though.

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What a creature. What a great blue-sky day that was.

We watched a Great Blue Heron patiently stalking prey on the shores of Ghost Bay for at least half an hour one early morning. We tired of watching before the heron tired of stalking. When we are patient ourselves, and quiet like the heron, we can drift around in our kayaks and not disturb the hunting. A few times the heron looked like it was doing the heron equivalent of salivating, but we didn’t see it catch anything.

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We watched this osprey in one of the dead trees in the south lobe of the lake, very near to the narrows, for a good bit. Steve was minus his best camera for wild life photography, so maybe the tree is the star more than the osprey. But what a pair!

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And when the sea gulls are not trying to snitch french fries from the Alpena McDonald’s/Home Depot parking lot, they can be quite the dignified bird.

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This one was perched, late in the fall, on what remained of the “this-will-kill-your-prop” now-submerged rock pile near Belly Button Island.  We imagine it hadn’t gotten to stand on those rocks all summer because it wasn’t anywhere near the top of the pecking order. There are still some gulls on the lake. Maybe this one is still sitting on the rock, making it look like he can walk on water.

There is some disturbing news, though. We were quite sure this year’s adolescent loon had flown off nearly a month ago. Steve saw it take flight and head high and upward. We are hoping that the little goofball didn’t get mixed up. But whether its “our” adolescent or another who just happened to make its way somehow to Long Lake, as of November 15th, with the snows closing in, there is still an adolescent loon on the lake.

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Honestly, this one–who we haven’t seen up close for a few weeks–looks to be smaller and somewhat lighter colored than the young one we watched all summer. We worry it’s this year’s chick, which certainly seems likely, and that it’s ailing. This photo was taken in early November. But we saw him yesterday, November 15th. He’d caught a fish.

Last year the adolescent didn’t leave until mid-November, so it’s still possible this one will take flight and head south before the lake freezes. “Fly, fly, fly!”

Osprey

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osprey2_lowresI would have thought the fish this osprey spotted in Ghost Bay didn’t have a chance. But this time the fish escaped. Look at that yellow eye and you can know it was among the last things many a fish saw. Osprey grab fish with their talons and not their beaks and they fly off to feed holding the fish in a head forward position. Less drag means they can manage a bigger fish in flight.

Osprey populations were decimated in the 1950’s and 1960’s mostly because of DDT use. Raptors are top-of-the-food-chain creatures. This means everybody else’s DDT collected in their bodies. They had no way to expel the toxins. One result? The bird’s calcium metabolism was interfered with. DDT-infested osprey laid eggs with shells so thin that they broke during incubation. But with DDT-bans in place for many decades now, the population has recovered. Wikipedia reports that the only raptor with a wider distribution is the peregrine falcon.

Osprey leave Long Lake (and Michigan) in the fall and return in the spring. Scientists are learning more about their wintering activities by attaching solar-battery backpacks to birds. During their 15-20 year lifespan, they may log 160,000 migration flight miles. During 13 days in 2008, one osprey flew 2700 miles–all the way from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts to French Guiana in South America. Young male osprey will spend two seasons in warmer places than Michigan and then return annually to the area where they hatched. Females disperse more widely.

If you know where the osprey are nesting on Long Lake, please leave a comment and let me know. It’s been many years since the stick nest atop the utility pole at the southern end of the lower bowl disappeared. And watch for these “fish hawks” on our lake. Usually it takes an osprey 12 minutes to catch a fish. That’s not a study at our lake, but let’s just say that my fishing success statistics are not quite that good.

Watchful Osprey

This Osprey sat on a high branch of a dead birch on Belly Button Island for the longest time. I was paddling on the east side of the island, along the drop-off, hoping to catch a glimpse of a nice big smallmouth bass. It was calm and sunny–the perfect morning for fish viewing. And the big bass that I love to watch love to prowl around the island.

This Osprey and I must have had the same idea. He was up above the water, about 40 feet, doubtless hoping to spot his fishy breakfast. He isn’t known as a fish hawk or a fish eagle just because he likes to watch fish swim by. Only once, in Ghost Bay, did I see an Osprey swoop down, snatch a fish in his talons, and carry it away, fish head forward. Quite a sight. This one let me get about ten feet from the base of his perch tree before he decided I was close enough and flew off. I suppose it might have been a she, though, because the sexes are not easy to distinguish: Wikipedia.

I did not see a smallmouth that morning. I paddled off to Ghost Bay. The Osprey caught no fish while I watched. He flew off toward The Narrows.

Osprey

We watched this Osprey for about ten minutes in Ghost Bay. It perched at the top of a dead birch, turning its head from side to side as if the bay was a buffet table.  This guy isn’t nicknamed “Fish Eagle” for nothing. One time, again in Ghost Bay, I watched as an Osprey flew from a perch, hovered over the water, dove in (feet first) and yanked  out a good-sized small mouth bass. The bird carried off the wriggling fish in his talons, in a head-forward aerodynamically-efficient position. That’s typical. An Osprey’s body is specially adapted for such dives. Its nostrils are closable, to keep the water out. The soles of its feet have barbed pads on them. Only two raptors, Osprey and owls, have reversible outer toes. This means an Osprey can grab and hang on to its prey with two toes in front and two toes in back. All these adaptations make it easier to hang on to slippery fish. Once in awhile, in a pinch, they might nab a small mammal or rodent, but mostly it’s all fish all the time. Being a miserably ineffective fisherwoman, living on one’s catch of Long Lake fish is a talent I can respect.

An Osprey in flight is easy to recognize. Its belly is white and the underside of its wings are distinctively marked with brown feathers that look a lot like eyes. The front edges of its wings have four long feathers that curl a bit at the ends, with one similarly-shaped shorter fifth feather. Although you can’t see it this photo, that only shows a white head, an Osprey has an eye mask of brown feathers. And these birds are big. On Long Lake, only the Bald Eagles are bigger. Osprey can be two feet long, with a wing span of about six feet.

We have one very prominent Osprey nest on Long Lake. Check out  the top of the utility pole on the small island at the south end of the lake.  That straggly pile of sticks and stuff  isn’t something left behind  by the Presque Isle rural electical co-op crew. If we could  peek inside the nest at just the right time, we’d see 2-4 big whitish eggs, with splashes of cinnamon coloring. The chicks hatch over the span of 4-5 days. The early-born have a much better chance to survive. Younger siblings typically don’t get pushed out of the nest or cannibalized, but those first few days without competition for food just gives the oldest a leg up. Here’s what an Osprey and its young sound like. Kind of sweeter than what you would think when you see that determined flight from a perch, that menacing hover, and that fierce fast dive for prey.

Osprey populations were endangered by egg collectors and over-hunting in the 19th century and again by DDT in the 20th century. They are doing better now that we work to leave them alone. We are so lucky to be able to live among these Long Lake raptors.